Montwheeler won’t face death penalty

Anthony Montwheeler, from Nampa, is currently lodged in the Malheur County Jail. (Enterprise file photo)

VALE – Recent changes in the state’s criminal law mean Anthony Montwheeler likely won’t face the death penalty.

Montwheeler, of Nampa, is charged with a series of crimes from Jan. 9, 2017.

He is accused of kidnapping an ex-wife, Annita Harmon, and stabbing her to death outside an Ontario gas station.

He is charged with murder following a head-on crash on Oregon Highway 201 that killed Vale resident David Bates and injured his wife, Jessica.

Montwheeler initially faced counts of aggravated murder, three counts of murder, and one count each of first-degree assault and first-degree kidnapping.

Montwheeler pleaded not guilty to all counts in February in Malheur County Circuit Court. Dave Goldthorpe, Malheur County district attorney, planned to seek the death penalty if Montwheeler was convicted but that isn’t going to happen now.

That’s because Oregon lawmakers reformed the state’s murder laws in the 2019 Legislature, restricting instances in which the death penalty could be applied.

“It doesn’t fit anymore. As far as what charges specifically there will be have yet to be determined,” said Goldthorpe.

Senate Bill 1013, which is waiting for the Gov. Kate Brown’s signature, alters the state’s existing death penalty law by changing the crime of aggravated murder – the only crime punishable by death in Oregon.

The legislation also removes future dangerousness as a factor for a jury to weigh when deciding on a death sentence.

The bill restricts aggravated murder to homicides that include two or more people in a terrorist-type act, murder by a previously convicted person in police custody or premeditated murder of someone under the age of 14. The bill also revised the existing crime of aggravated murder to first-degree murder and second-degree murder.

 “I would say that the bill does sharply narrow the category of what is aggravated murder and what is eligible for capital punishment,” said Stephen Kanter, dean of the Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland.

Supporters of the bill gave legislators a wide-range of reasons for the change, including the assertion the existing law is too broad and doesn’t improve public safety or prevent crime.

Then-Gov. John Kitzhaber announced a moratorium on executions in Oregon in 2011. Gov. Kate Brown has since continued the moratorium.

Opponents of the bill countered in testimony during the session that the state’s death penalty system works well.

Opponents also asserted passage of the bill would impact prior death penalty cases, and essentially would repeal the law.

That fact, opponents asserted, would make the existing death penalty law unconstitutional.

A key point for opponents of the bill was the issue should be decided by voters, not lawmakers.

“If the voters of Oregon want the death penalty repealed, let the voters tell the Legislature that is what they want,” said Katie Suver, deputy district attorney for Marion County in her testimony.

Goldthorpe said Multnomah County Circuit Judge Thomas Ryan, who presides over the case, directed that he and Montwheeler’s Portland defense attorney, David Falls, work out the next steps in light of the changes. Goldthorpe said now there are two avenues for attorneys. Goldthorpe and Falls could agree to amend the charges against Montwheeler or start over with new charges based on the new law.

 “I need to see what the actual statute looks like,” said Goldthorpe.

Goldthorpe said it is likely that Montwheeler would now face a life sentence if convicted.

Goldthorpe said the new law will “remove a potential consequence for defendants and could remove the motivation for them to resolve their case.”

Goldthorpe said he believes changes to the death penalty law were for voters to decide.

“I am not the one who makes the laws, but since this affects what was a constitutionally-approved punishment it should have gone to the voters,” said Goldthorpe.

Voters endorsed capital punishment in 1984. Kanter said he “completely disagreed” about whether voters should weigh on the issue.

“It is not a credible point of view. It is the legislature’s job. They conducted extensive hearings and reached a pretty sound conclusion. In general, it is a very thoughtful bill and I think the system will be better off,” said Kanter.

Montwheeler’s trial is scheduled for next year.

Montwheeler’s defense team has filed several motions with the court, including requests for a change of venue, and a declaration that Montwheeler was not eligible for the death penalty and that the death penalty wasn’t constitutional.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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